July 27, 2012
Why are the unions whipping themselves into a lather about who should lead the Federal Labor Government?
Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd? It doesn’t really matter - Labor will be out of office next year, at the latest, no matter who is at the helm. The only question is how bad the electoral fallout will be. And going on the swing against Labor in opinion polls and in recent state elections it will be bone shattering.
So the issue confronting the unions is not one of leadership but how to live in the political wilderness for goodness knows how long.
As it stumbles from one disaster to another the Rudd (and currently Gillard) Government is vying with the Whitlam administration for the title of the worst government in Australia’s history.
And the similarities are broad ranging. Gillard gave the unions the industrial whip hand delivering a new shop floor structure in the form of Fair Work Australia which trashed John Howard’s Work Choices and substituted a mandatory system of collective bargaining outlawing voluntary individual workplace agreements.
Soon after it assumed power in 1972 the Whitlam Government rewarded the unions with automatic quarterly wage indexation rises. It didn’t take too long for the coin to drop, so to speak, and the negative economic impact of this policy became apparent. But it was too late to stop a wages feeding frenzy.
Now Gillard’s handcrafted industrial relations system, a gift to the unions for their financial and physical support in the campaign against Work Choices, is careering off the rails. The impact of inflexible labour costs on small business, for example, cannot be overestimated. And the demand for skilled and unskilled labour by the Government’s national broadband monolith is a wages explosion just waiting to happen.
Thirty eight years ago the unions were staring down the same black parliamentary hole that is looming again for the Labor movement’s political wing. Labor was heavily outgunned in the House of Representatives after the dismissal election in 1975 with Malcolm Fraser’s conservative coalition holding 91 seats to the ALP’s 36. And worse was to come in the 1977 poll.
On top of this Labor was out of office in Queensland, New South wales, Victoria and Western Australia.
Against this background Charlie Fitzgibbon, the general secretary of the powerful Waterside Workers’ Federation, argued that the time had come for the union movement to effectively take on the role of a de facto Opposition while Labor’s parliamentary body reinvented itself.
Writing in the WWF’s national journal, the Maritime Worker, Fitzgibbon, who was appointed senior vice president of the ACTU a few years later, said the unions faced a vital political test.
In a scenario that seems certain to be repeated after the next federal election he said any realistic assessment of the political landscape “must determine where the ability exists to form an effective review opposition” until the political tide turned.
The answer was that the only organisation which could effectively take over the role of not just an opposition to the coalition government but also a vehicle to force review of proposed legislation was the organised trade union movement.
He went on to argue that the union movement had an obligation to use “every means possible” to work for the restoration of a Labor Government but conceded that this had to be seen as a long term objective.
Despite dominating the Lower House and controlling the Senate the ensuing years of the Fraser coalition government were marred by industrial relations chaos.
Of course the union movement’s power base has shifted considerably since 1975 when it could claim nearly three million members. Today, despite the advent of the Labor Government and a small rise coinciding with the GFC, union membership has fallen to 1.8 million or 18 per cent of the total workforce.
But while the unions’ bark may be worse than their bite Tony Abbott is likely to find out pretty soon after the election whether it is Labor’s parliamentary leader (whoever that is) or the head of the ACTU that he will effectively be facing across the table.
And because of this taking an industrial relations reform agenda up to the people at the next election is a major priority for today’s coalition leader.
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray